As commuters bustled away from downtown on a recent Friday evening, Chicago's skyscrapers turned to silhouette, framed by an orange autumn sunset.
But that wasn't the view that made John Rowe linger. From his office on the 54th floor of Chase Tower downtown, the 66-year-old Exelon Corp. chief waited, before a commanding view of the skyline, for the dawning of his lights, those powered by Commonwealth Edison.
"When you fly into Chicago at night and you see those lights that go on and on and on, you just get the shivers," he said, dressed impeccably in a suit and carefully chosen tie, his cuff links outfitted from two Athenian tetradrachm, the silver currency of ancient Greece.
For Rowe, keeping the lights on across all those miles gave purpose to his 28 years as a utility executive.
"Electricity is a wonderful business. But it's also very difficult," he said. "It's important to everyone, rich or poor. It has huge environmental effects, for good or worse."
When Rowe retires early next year, he will leave an industry he helped shape for about a quarter of its lifetime. Soon, his office — it's filled with the artifacts of the Pharaohs, kings and emperors whose sagas he turns to for advice — will be stripped of his effects and prepared for his successor.
The usually overbooked time slots on his calendar have begun to open up, leaving him more time to devote to the charter schools that bear his name, to his role as trustee of the Chicago History Museum and to the speaking engagements where, more and more, he is prone to unscripted reverie about his lengthy career.
"I notice vice presidents around the Chase building solemnly chanting: 'The king is dead, long live the king.' God, I wish they'd wait until I stop putting moisture on the mirror," Rowe said recently at a conference of 20- and 30-somethings from North American Young Generation in Nuclear, a professional organization.
For a CEO who answers and deletes his own emails faster than his staffers are able to read them, the process of ceding control of the $19 billion company has been emotional.
"This company is my baby," he said. "The truth is, I don't do anything else very well."
The persuasive and affable Rowe spent the majority of his tenure at Exelon pushing for climate legislation in Washington. He ruled the nation's largest fleet of nuclear power plants, machines that collectively produce enough electricity to power 17 million homes. He oversaw the massive merger of Peco Energy Co. and the parent of Commonwealth Edison Co. that created Exelon Corp. in 2000, and, as CEO, he is responsible for 19,114 employees.
Now, after a series of failed deals and the disappointment of his 10-year fight for cap-and-trade legislation flaming out last year, Rowe is set to exit with a final, $8 billion acquisition under his belt, that of Baltimore-based Constellation Energy Group Inc.
But as a man who devours books on ancient Egypt and China, American and Spanish history and the Byzantine Empire, Rowe realizes that part of overseeing Exelon is ensuring it can survive without him.
Alexander the Great, who by age 30 ruled land stretching from the Himalayas to the Ionian Sea, died without choosing an heir. It didn't take long for his vast empire to dissolve into chaos.
"What happens is, none of Alexander's generals have the same charisma he has, so they start fighting amongst themselves," Rowe recently told the class of advanced-placement World History students he teaches monthly at the Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy in West Humboldt Park.
There also are tangible reasons to plan a succession and move on, Rowe said later.
"I have to start going to the gym and losing weight. Adding a pill a year just isn't working."
Rowe came to Chicago from a New England utility, arriving as head of Unicom Corp., owner of Commonwealth Edison, in 1998, a time when the city's lights didn't always reliably turn on. Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley was outraged about the power failures. There were outages and riots on the West Side, and things had gotten so bad that the city was considering a move to purchase and oversee its own electrical system.
"I was very afraid of what might happen to the delivery system in 1999," Rowe said. "We had three or four outages in the Loop. It's not supposed to happen."
At the same time, the company's nuclear fleet was operating at an abysmal 49 percent of its capacity, and it was saddled with a large fleet of old fossil fuel plants.
This was exactly where Rowe wanted to be, though, in position to turn around a foundering company. There are two ways to become a CEO, he said: "Succeed your boss. Or find a company that's in a lot of trouble."
Christopher Crane, chief operating officer of Exelon Corp., who in turn will succeed Rowe, recalls the day they first met in 1998. Expecting the CEO to woo him for a vice presidency with the nuclear fleet, Crane, then site vice president for the Tennessee Valley Authority's Browns Ferry nuclear plant, flew in to meet Rowe for an interview at the Four Seasons hotel in Chicago.
"The interview was over in about five minutes," said Crane, whose office, decorated with framed photographs of nuclear power plants and a map of U.S. natural gas pipelines, stands in stark contrast to Rowe's more Romantic flair. "He said, 'You and your friends have one year to get these plants right, or we're going to start to shut them down.'"
That's when Crane realized Rowe wasn't there to woo him after all.
"It was, 'Here's your assignment,'" Crane said with a grin. "He's very determined. … When the organization was new, he didn't have time to wait. The progress needed to be made, and he was pointed and directive."
Through the years, Crane said, he has seen Rowe evolve from taskmaster to a more sage, grandfatherly role.
Following a road map
Through a road map the company refers to as Exelon 2020, Rowe has staked his legacy on the idea that there is money to be made through "clean, reliable and affordable energy."
"We thought the science (behind climate change) was real, and we knew we were going to be asked a lot of things that were going to cost us and our shareholders a lot of money. So we thought, let's try to work something out that's sensible," Rowe said.
Before the merger with Peco, Rowe made the decision to sell ComEd's fossil fuel fleet. "Because it was old. Because it was clunky. Because it was dirty. Because we needed the cash," Rowe said.
It was a decision that would forever alter the direction of Exelon, making it a company vastly less dependent on coal. Crane nearly doubled the amount of electricity produced by the company's nuclear plants, dramatically improving profitability while raising the company's profile as a low-emission generator of electricity. Although about 45 percent of the nation's electricity is produced by coal-fired generation plants, Exelon's portfolio stands at a meager 6 percent coal mix.
"It was certainly a very, very good move," said Thomas Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, an industry association for investor-owned electric companies. "No. 1, he got a very good price for the plants, and, obviously, it gave him a very, very clean, modern fleet."
As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency toughens its stance against hazardous pollutants, threatening the future of the nation's coal business, Exelon, after a merger with Constellation, would have a fleet that is 87 percent low-emission, a portfolio Rowe helped create amid complex regulatory changes and political debate about the way the nation produces energy.
"It's a very complicated business," said Tom Farrell, CEO of Dominion Resources Inc., a power and energy company headquartered in Richmond, Va. "You have these huge machines that use an enormous amount of fuel to produce this invisible product. There's politics involved in it; there's regulations involved. It's local, state and federal. All that mixed together is producing this product that every single person needs all the time."
Exelon's goal is to reduce, offset or displace 15.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year by 2020.
Under Rowe, Exelon was the first in its industry to join the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a group of businesses advocating for federal legislation that required significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.
Still, Rowe said, "My impact on energy policy wouldn't fill one corncob pipe."
Gary Johnson, president of the Chicago History Museum, watched as Rowe, a museum board member since 1998 and a former chairman, turned to the life of President Abraham Lincoln while planning the museum's 2009 celebration of the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth.
"You could see that he was someone who was constantly struggling with the qualities of mind that Lincoln had," Johnson said. "One of the things he's very interested in is the development of Lincoln's view on slavery … because it bears on how people make decisions, compromise. Was he simply responding to events, or are you setting a course? These are important historical questions for John, but I think they're important personal questions as well.
"There isn't the John Rowe who goes to the history board meeting and then there's this other John Rowe who is a utility executive. He's all these things 24/7."
Through the Rowe Family Charitable Trust founded by Rowe, his wife, Jeanne, and son, Bill, the family co-founded the Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy and the Rowe Elementary School.
The couple has given $4 million to the Math & Science Academy, and Exelon has added $2.87million. When Rowe arrived recently to speak at the dedication of the school's new gymnasium — it was a celebratory affair complete with student performances and a full color guard — John and Jeanne Rowe were treated like royalty.
Students frequently greet them with embraces. John Rowe remembers their names, their plans, their last conversation.
"I think he knows more about them as people than sometimes their classroom teachers," Johnson said.
After retirement, Rowe said, he plans to be an even more regular face at the school, where he wields not only his money but also his clout to help students.
Rowe recently sat down at a meeting arranged by the principal to offer a young man a letter of recommendation for college.
"What makes a letter from me important is, one, I have very fancy stationery; two, it's not the kind of reference most kids have," Rowe told the student.
His interest in childhood education comes from his wife, who tutors or mentors young people three days a week at the various schools the couple supports.
Rowe calls her the rock that has propped up his career, as well as the inspiration behind his interest in education.
"I've been very lucky I've had an old-fashioned wife. It's very hard to do what I do without someone taking care of the home, someone taking care of me. Without her, I'd be lonely," he said.
"If it's called old-fashioned, so be it," said Jeanne, who met Rowe in 1988 when the two worked at a small utility in New England and married him in 1995. "You do for me, I do for you. We don't keep a score card. We don't have a spreadsheet."
John Rowe, chairman and CEO, Exelon Corp.
On being a CEO: "It's a need. It's not a rational decision. There's an old folk song that goes, 'I'd rather be a hammer than a nail.'"
2010 salary: $7.2 million. Stock performance awards worth $1.1 million were not earned because Exelon's shares dropped in price. Stock options worth $1.15 million were underwater. Demand for electricity dropped 4.2 percent in 2009, the largest drop in 60 years. The economy remained sluggish in 2010.
2010 charitable giving: $4 million to 82 organizations, including the Field Museum, Chicago History Museum, Illinois Institute of Technology, Big Shoulders Fund, Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, El Valor, Greater Chicago Food Depository, Misericordia Heart of Mercy Center and United Way of Metropolitan Chicago.
Tut-tut: Rowe's penchant for ancient Egyptian artifacts led to controversy in 2006 when the secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities expressed his outrage that Rowe, whose company was sponsoring a King Tut exhibit at the Field Museum, kept a sarcophagus of a mummy in his office. He threatened to cut Egypt's ties with the Field Museum if Rowe didn't return the mummy or make it available for public viewing. Rowe smoothed things over by offering it to the museum on permanent loan.
On nuclear power: "The really important thing is that you don't become so confident in your machines that you forget that machines are not much better than the people who run them."
On the 2000 merger with Peco: "I got a call from a vice president one day saying he was working on a deal with another company and would push me out. Poor son of a bitch didn't count his votes."
On the Egyptian Pharaohs: "They married their sisters. It's not a good biological practice."
On his marriage: "I have Athena in her warrior pose on my wedding ring. My wife says it's very good of her to let me have another woman on my wedding ring. It helps that she doesn't believe Athena existed. I'm not so sure."